Don’t Give Up The Ship

In the late afternoon of June 1, 1813, as he lay dying, Captain James Lawrence could tell by the shouts on deck that the British had boarded his ship. The USS Chesapeake was battered and outgunned but Lawrence was a military man, and he gave what would be his stoic final order: “Don’t give up the ship. Fight her till she sinks.”

His command was universally seen as an act of valor, despite the obvious fact that he had quite a bit less to lose than his men, considering that he was, at that moment, already bleeding to death. But that’s not the point. The Chesapeake was ultimately given up, within the hour even, but that’s not the point either. The point is that “Don’t Give Up The Ship!” became the rallying cry for the fledgling U.S. Navy, who ultimately overpowered the British and (spoiler alert!) won the war of 1812.

Now. What any of that has to do with gin, Fernet Branca, orange liqueur and Dubonnet is anyone’s guess, but it does. Not everything is explainable; enjoy the mystery. What best I can tell, a cocktail by that name first appeared some 130 years later in Crosby Gaige’s Cocktail Guide and Ladies’ Companion in 1941, but twiddled its thumbs in obscurity until sometime around 2004, when it was unearthed and reanimated, like so many other greats, at Seattle’s Zig Zag Cafe.

It was first made for me by Dave Kinsey at Craft and Commerce, who told me he picked up the recipe from Sam Ross. I immediately fell in love with this drink. Fernet Branca is such a problem child that getting it to play nice is a treasure in itself, and the flavors layer perfectly … it hits clean and bright, with the Fernet sparkling like a firecracker on the finish. It’s beautiful.

But, when I looked up the recipe online (here or here or pretty much anywhere), it was different than the one I was given. Not entirely different, but different enough that it would change not just the flavors but the character of the final drink. Mine had a half ounce each of Cointreau, Fernet Branca, and Carpano Antica; the original subs Dubonnet Rouge for Carpano, and halves the liqueurs down to 1/4oz each, subbing Grand Marnier for Cointreau.


Clearly an extensive round of experiments was in order. Which is like my favorite thing. I made 8 incarnations, learned quite a bit about the mechanics of this particular drink (as well as Dubonnet and Grand Marnier), and came up with what I think is the definitive recipe. I’ll give you that first (if that’s what you’re here for), then below I will — as we used to say — show my work.

Don’t Give Up The Ship (The Best Version)
1.5 oz London Dry Gin
0.5oz Cointreau
0.5oz Carpano Antica
0.5oz Fernet Branca
1 dash Angostura Orange bitters
Stir over ice for 30 seconds; strain into chilled cocktail glass; garnish with a orange peel.


But why should we believe you? (a.k.a. Nerding Out w/Cocktails)

Because I got good and drunk over two nights just so I could tell you these things.

Also, please don’t take my gin choice to say that I think it’s the best for this drink. It’s just what I had lying around.

Attempts 1 and 2:

1: Craft and Commerce/Sam Ross/The One I Initially Fell in Love with

1.5oz gin (Sapphire East)
0.5oz Cointreau
0.5oz Carpano Antica
0.5oz Fernet Branca
2 dash orange bitters (Angostura Orange)


2. Same ratios, switch out Cointreau for Grand Marnier

1.5oz gin (Sapphire East)
0.5oz Grand Marnier
0.5oz Carpano Antica
0.5oz Fernet Branca
2 dash orange bitters (Angostura Orange)

The only difference is the orange liqueur, and my god is it a difference. The original recipe calls for orange curacao and most people sub in Grand Marnier, which is way, way worse. Maybe changing to Dubonnet as well will somehow change that, but I doubt it. Not only is the entire drink out of balance, no harmonies to speak of… but the finish, where the Fernet should fizzle, instead there’s all these oaky vanilla flavors from GM’s cognac base. The flavors don’t fit at all, and actually makes me wonder it’s possible that Grand Marnier could ever fit in this drink.

Attempts 3 and 4, reducing the liqueurs from 0.5oz to 0.25oz:

3: Original ratio, with Cointreau

1.5oz gin (Sapphire East)
0.5oz Carpano Antica
0.25oz Cointreau
0.25oz Fernet Branca
2 dash orange bitters (Angostura Orange)


4. Original ratio, with the (seemingly more traditional) Grand Marnier

1.5oz gin (Sapphire East)
0.5oz Carpano Antica
0.25oz Grand Marnier
0.25oz Fernet Branca
2 dash orange bitters (Angostura Orange)

This is interesting… this echos the original recipe that has only a quarter ounce of orange liqueur and Fernet Branca. Where before (with 0.5oz each) the Cointreau was perfectly balanced, taking away a quarter ounce of Fernet and Cointreau renders the cocktail effete and kind of waifish. … and it should be noted, this is a problem that the weighty force of Grand Marnier solves nicely. #3 is too light, #4 restores balance. I still don’t think the cognac flavors belong there, but let’s see what happens with Dubonnet.

Attempts #5 and #6: Enter Dubonnet

5th Attempt: The Classic Recipe

1.5oz gin (Sapphire East)
0.5oz Dubonnet Rouge
0.25oz Grand Marnier
0.25oz Fernet Branca

Thinner, a bit oaky, but the near-fruity brightness of the Dubonnet mixes incredibly well with the Grand Marnier. This is totally delicious. The dissonance is fascinating. Definitely a different drink than #1. This may be a Happy Gilmore/Billy Madison situation (you prefer the one you saw first). Perfectly balanced with high complexity. I can’t get over the bright/heavy thing with the Dubonnet/Grand Marnier. Great.


6th: Craft and Commerce recipe with Dubonnet instead of Carpano Antica

1.5oz gin (Sapphire East)
0.5oz Dubonnet Rouge
0.5oz Cointreau
0.5oz Fernet Branca
2 dash orange bitters (Angostura Orange)

I feel like in a way this is a drink without a country. Dubonnet has less richness than Carpano, a richness the drink really needs to balance the crisp punch of Cointreau. Very interesting. The lightness makes the Fernet almost toothpaste-y, plus with a mess of jaunty flavor wisps on the back end. It just misses. Flavor waves don’t line up. One of five stars. Would not buy again.

Final Test: #1 against #5

I guess I could’ve just skipped straight to this, but I wanted to understand the mechanics and now I do. The classic with Dubonnet and Grand Marnier is a lower tone, more restrained. Sitting around a fire, maybe. Craving warmth. The vanilla and oak flavors certainly dictate the overall feel. #1, on the other hand, is bright and cheery, cleaner and crisper. It showcases the Fernet. It’s a modern drink – bright, complex, full. I end with what I started with. #1, with a bullet.

Attempts #7 and #8: Postscripts & Curiosities

7th: Can I switch out a citrus-forward new gin for the juniper-forward London Dry?

1.5oz gin (Martin Miller’s Westbourne Strength)
0.5oz Cointreau
0.5oz Carpano Antica
0.5oz Fernet Branca
2 dash orange bitters (Angostura Orange)

Miller’s Gin is on the other side of the spectrum: fuller, and much more citrus/less juniper. The answer is No, no, you can’t mess with the gin. Use London Dry, something crisp and juniper forward. It’s actually pretty amazing how much the cocktail fell apart with the Miller’s. Heavy, unpleasant bitterness. Don’t even bother.

8th: How about the new ratios with the classic liqueurs? 0.5oz of everything but with GM and Dubonnet?

1.5oz gin (Sapphire East)
0.5oz Grand Marnier
0.5oz Dubonnet
0.5oz Fernet Branca
2 dash orange bitters (Angostura Orange)

No way. Way too much. This is a jumbled hodgepodge of messy flavors all trying too hard to get noticed, like the cocktail equivelent of watching The Bachelor. Curiosity satisfied. I don’t need any more. We have our champion.


In this business you hear a lot of origin stories about classic cocktails, but rarely get to experience them. That is to say, you rarely get to (1) actually go to the room in which it was invented, and (2) get one that is as good if not better than it is anywhere else. But if you’re ever lucky enough to find yourself in Venice and have that special mixture of historical reverence and financial irreverence, well, then you get to go to Harry’s Bar and drink a Bellini.


On Calle Vallaresso, a block west of the Piazza San Marco at the mouth of the Grand Canal sits Harry’s Bar, much as it has since the 1931. A small bit has changed since then — they’ve expanded upstairs, and international fame has driven their prices into the ionosphere — but such is, we’re told, the cost of history:

In the 1930s, Venice was a favorite destination of the cream of European society, and Harry’s Bar thrived under the hospitality of owner and barman Giuseppe Cipriani. It also didn’t hurt that its name attracted anglophiles, and was extremely — though coincidentally — similar to another world-famous bar of the time, the unconnected Harry’s New York Bar in Paris. But no matter: it had the staying power of quality, and was a favorite among rich locals and well-to-do tourists, then of visiting movie stars and other such celebrities. Once Hemingway chose it as his favorite spot in 1949, Harry’s officially became legendary. Which I guess is what makes it ok for them to charge €10 for eight ounces of Coca-Cola.


Sometime in the late 30s, Cipriani was stuck with a glut of seasonal white peaches and no good way to store them. After what must’ve been a whisper from the muses, he whipped up a puree and added it to some prosecco, and the world’s greatest sparkling wine cocktail was born. His drink, popular though it was, went unnamed for almost a decade. It wasn’t until 1948 when Cipriani christened it the Bellini, after he saw the drink’s pink hue echoed in a painting by the homonymous Renaissance artist.

From Harry’s own website:

When making a Bellini, everything (the glasses, Prosecco and white peach puree) should be as cold as possible. The general rule is to use one part white peach puree to three parts Prosecco. Use fresh frozen white peach puree when you can, but when making your own puree, never use a food processor because it aerates the fruit. (Maurice Graham Henry often uses a cheese shredder, shredding the peaches and using a strainer to collect the maximum amount of juice.) Add a bit of sugar or some simple syrup if the puree is too tart or a tad sour.

6oz Prosecco
2oz White peach puree
Mix together in separate mixing tin or glass, stir with a spoon; then pour into flute, wine glass, or really whatever you’d like [coffee mug, dog bowl, etc.]. Serve without garnish.

Though each 7oz glass cost $21 (seriously), this is without doubt the best Bellini I’ve ever had. I find Mimosas boring and best prefixed with “endless,” but a Bellini is a elegant, classic drink. Gary Regan calls it “perhaps the most sophisticated Italian drink,” and while I don’t agree at all (against the Negroni? Is he kidding?), it is incredibly good. Bright, full, and harmonious. I sometimes find sparkling wine cocktails to be too thin and effervescent, but the 3:1 prosecco/puree mix hits perfectly.

A note on ingredients: don’t use champagne, get the prosecco. It’s a bit sweeter, which helps, and besides — this is a very Italian drink. If you live in a submarine or something and can’t get prosecco, then use a sweeter champagne than brut, something sec or demi-sec.

Oh, and never use yellow peaches. A pox on you if you use yellow peaches. They’re nowhere near as good.

Pink Squirrel

“Is there any alcohol in that at all?”

— Sam Seaborn

My grandmother’s go-to drink was whiskey & water. It was what she had around the house, and we her family used it sometimes as a weapon, deployed to mollify her late-afternoon grumpiness. I never did glean what her preferred whiskey was; it may have been Seagram’s 7,  but I’m pretty sure she didn’t give a damn one way or the other. It wasn’t special. There was no ceremony. For her, whiskey & water was a kitchen table, Tuesday afternoon drink.

For special occasions, though, when the outfits were removed from their thick reflective plastic, and the nice jewelry retrieved from the ornate chest on her dresser… special occasions called for a Pink Squirrel.

I had always assumed that it was a flapper drink, ordered at speakeasies by women in stringy dresses, and served in gently-sloped martini glasses so to not discompose one’s cloche. But it was not so. Paternity credit goes to Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who claim the drink was invented there by the owner, Bryant Sharp, in 1941. I’ve not seen any evidence, but in the absence of either competing claims or more information, we’re rolling with it.

It enjoyed some popularity even through the mid 70s, shifting  into obscurity not long after. They (Bryant’s) say it was originally with ice cream, but by the time it first showed up in print, in the 1966 edition of Old Mr. Boston, the dairy had morphed into heavy cream. And this is the recipe you’ll get pretty much anywhere. The original:

Pink Squirrel
1oz creme de noyaux
1oz white creme de cacao
1oz heavy cream
Combine ingredients in mixing tin; shake; strain into martini glass; no garnish.

Special thanks to the excellent bar at Hunter Steakhouse, the only bar I know absolutely for sure keeps a bottle of creme de noyaux.

There are a couple problems with this, the first and most obvious presented as a question: What the hell is creme de noyaux?

Noyaux (noy-yew) is a French word for “stone” or “kernel,” specifically the kernels found inside the pit of stone fruits (peaches, plums, apricots, etc.) Creme de noyaux is a bright red liqueur made from these peach kernels, which taste strongly of marzipan and bitter almonds. So it is, at it’s most basic level, a liqueur that tastes like almonds, even though it has no almonds in it.

It’s all but extinct now, particularly in the U.S., though you can find it here and there. The problem is that these kernels contain a compound which gets converted into hydrogen cyanide upon digestion. Which is bad. In fact, of all the words to follow “hydrogen” in terms of digestibles, “cyanide” is among the worst. So even the bottles you can find are probably flavored artificially, which is way easier than neutralizing cyanic compounds.

Sometimes arcane ingredients get resurrected, like creme de violette and Old Tom Gin, but I wouldn’t bet on a Noyaux revival because the liqueur is the capitalistically grim trifecta of being difficult to make, somewhat expensive, and in incredibly low demand.

If you have creme de noyaux, artificial or not, go ahead and make that drink. Chocolate, almonds, and creme don’t need a cheerleader in me. For what it’s worth, I’ve never used heavy cream, opting instead for half & half or whole milk, pretty much whatever’s around. I wouldn’t go leaner than whole, but that and creamier will work fine. The faint bitterness of noyaux plays a small diplomatic role in mitigating sweetness, but be assured, this is bright pink dessert. It’s creamy. It’s sweet. It’s delicious.

If no noyaux, there are two alternatives. Well, three, assuming you’ve got a bucket full of peach pits and a heart full of danger.

(1) Make your own. A few intrepid bloggers have tackled the production, most notably Matthew Rowley, hydrogen cyanide be damned. I don’t recommend this, but do as you like.

(2) Use grenadine. Be advised, this makes an entirely different drink (often called Pink Squirrel #2). While it remains bubblegum pink, grenadine is chosen exclusively for its color, as the pomegranite/flower-water flavor has nothing whatsoever to do with bitter almond/marzipan of noyaux.  A chocolate and pomegranate mixture has charms all it’s own, but a Pink Squirrel it ain’t.

(3) Amaretto. Noyaux’s shares the tastes-like-almonds-though-there’s-no-almonds characteristic with (most) amaretto. Though amaretto is an almond liqueur, it usually gets its flavor from apricot pits. Flavor-wise, it’s a good call. But amaretto won’t get you a pink squirrel, rendering instead a light brownish-squirrel.

C’est la vie. We do what we can.

If you (for some reason) want to learn more about creme de noyaux, there is a reasonably complete discussion here.


A short story: at my grandmother’s 70th birthday, in 1996, the whole extended family convened at a bar in Detroit. My aunt managed to source a bottle of creme de noyaux, and the Pink Squirrels were flowing with heady abandon. I was 12 at the time and, mesmerized by the lurid martini glasses abound, demanded a taste of this mysterious candy-colored beverage. It was so much better than the gross wine and barfy beer that I had tasted before that I proclaimed, much to everyones drunken amuseument, that “when I turn 21, my first drink is going to be a Pink Squirrel!”

Eight and a half years and 2500 miles from that point, my mother conspiratorially tells this story to my friends, so it’s decided and enforced that my first legal drink has to be a Pink Squirrel. We first tried the W Hotel in Westwood, who blinked absently at our requests for either the cocktail or the noyaux, so 12:05am on December 6, 2004 found us in the basement bar of the Beverly Hills Hotel, Pink Squirrel in hand. I took a picture and sent it to my Grandmother, who responded with the same kind of overwhelmed happiness that she did every time any of her grandchildren did anything.

12/6/2004 and 9/15/12:

“What did you expect?” Úrsula sighed. “Time passes.”
“That’s how it goes,” Aureliano admitted, “but not so much.”

— One Hundred Years of Solitude

Grapefruit Lime Cordial

First things first, some (I promise) brief history & trivia on the British Royal Navy, scurvy, DrPepper Snapple Group Inc., and what any of that has to do with a grapefruit lime cordial I made in my kitchen the other day:

Scurvy is a degenerative and ultimately fatal disease caused by not enough vitamin C. As we can get like 1,200% of our daily C from one glass of orange juice, we in the 21st century don’t often require bravery in the face of scurvy. But to sailors in the 18th century, it was a essentially a plague. In that century, the 1700s, the Royal Navy lost more sailors to scurvy than they did to actual war.

Not that some didn’t have good ideas. One commander, Admiral Edward Vernon stumbled onto something when in he decreed in 1740 that lime juice be added to his sailors rations, originally to make their gross, algae’d water more palatable. Surprisingly, his men thrived while the others’ teeth fell out. There was only one problem with this: the only way to preserve lime juice for long sea voyages was to add it to their daily rations of rum (a shit hot dirty rum at that, which direly needed lime juice’s charms anyway). With their “grog” (rum, water, lime) taken in the morning as medicine, sailors were falling out of the riggings drunk by mid-afternoon. Again, better to do that with teeth than without, so the lime juice stayed.

It was another 100 years before a young Scot named Lauchlan Rose patented a way to preserve lime juice without alcohol. That was 1867, the same year the Government got wise to the whole citrus business and mandated that all Navy ships give daily rations of lime juice to everyone on board. Rose’s “Lime Juice Cordial” became ubiquitous almost immediately, surviving over 140 years to present day. It pairs with gin to make a gimlet, and you can generally find a crusty old bottle of it behind most bars… But not mine. Rose’s is now owned by DrPepper Snapple Group Inc., and as such is made like a soft drink with the following ingredients: water, high fructose corn syrup, lime juice concentrate, sodium metabisulfite (preservative), natural flavors, and Blue #1. It is, with it’s lurid chemical florescence, precisely the type of saccharine bullshit that the cocktail resurgence defines itself against.

This puts us cocktail people in a uncomfortable dilemma, a kind of paradox of snobbery: you must use a lime cordial (not lime juice) to make a proper gimlet, but you also must use fresh ingredients. So what do you do? Enter: homemade cordial (I added grapefruits for a specific drink I was making; obviously this is not necessary). And what do you know, not only is it cheap and easy, it’s unbelievably good.

Grapefruit Lime Cordial

Step 1: Aquire a bunch of grapefruits and limes, an equal amount of each. I did 8 each, which ended up making roughly 45 ounces of cordial. Which is a lot if you’re using it 0.75oz at a time.

Step 2: Wash that shit. With a vegetable brush. Even organic citrus usually has food-grade wax on it to preserve freshness, and the peel is especially important here.

Step 3: Peel grapefruits and limes with a vegetable peeler, removing all the skin but as little as the pith as possible. Pile the skins into a large-ish bowl. This peeling business is difficult with the limes because of their thin skin, so this first time I ended up zesting them. I’ve since made a ginger/lime cordial where I said to hell with it and just peeled them, and it worked fine. This is good, because I absolutely despise zesting limes, and exponentially so in large amounts.

Step 4: Measure out 3oz of ultra-fine sugar per grapefruit, and dump it into the bowl. I used 8 grapefruits, so I covered them in 24oz (by volume) of sugar. Using a muddler, or potato crusher, or really any hard flat object, muddle (press firmly) the peels into the sugar, over and over. Your goal is to bruise most of the surface area of the peels, then surround them with the sugar. Cover and let sit on the countertop between 1-3 hours, stirring once or twice (if you want).

One of the charming characteristics of sugar is that it is oleophilic, which means that it likes to bond with oil. So for that hour, the sugar is drawing the naturally occurring citrus oils out of the bruised peels. When you come back, you find some thick, brightly citrus flavored syrup. If you were to stop now, it would be called oleo saccharum (literally “oily sugar”) a totally delicious sweetener used in punches and the like. But we’re not stopping now. Oh no. Strap in, friends, and put your juicing pants on.

Step 5: Juice the now-naked grapefruits and limes, and add that juice to the oleo saccharum. Because the size of the fruits will govern both how much peel and how much juice they give, this ratio pretty much works itself out.

Step 6: Add the mixture to a heat. Just a little, well before boil, just enough so gentle stirring dissolves the sugar. As soon as the sugar has been completely dissolved, remove.

Step 7: Strain out all the solids. The sugar makes it thick, so this is easiest done when it’s still warm. My method is to use a pasta strainer to get the big peels, then a tea strainer for the smaller pulpy business, but you do whatever you want. This is America, after all.

The pulp won’t ruin anything, but it’s better without. Step 8: Bottle, and refrigerate. Once it cools down, it’s ready to go.

Step 9:  Enjoy.

It’s sweet and tart, with an unbelievable brightness from the citrus oil. The sugar more or less neutralizes the bitterness from the grapefruit, giving it a candied feel. Add carbonated water for an amazing soda, or mix with pretty much whatever you like.

BONUS COCKTAIL: I made this for the GQ Bombay Sapphire “Most Imaginative Bartender” competition. I would’ve ordinarily stopped at the basic drink, but that “imaginative” part demanded more. Thus the weirdness. It didn’t win or anything but I was still very pleased with it, and it’s been enjoying orders for 2nds and even 3rds at the bar.

Sailor’s Gimlet
2oz Gin
0.75oz grapefruit lime cordial
0.5oz fresh lime juice

You could stop now, but what makes it way better is:

Rinse the glass with Batavia Arrack if possible; if not, an agricole rum or cachaca. If not, a funky rum. If you have nothing, or nothing but Bacardi, go buy better rum.

You could definitely stop now, but what makes it (whoooaaa!) “imaginitive” is:

Also rinse glass with Green Chartreuse; but first, rim cocktail glass with cinnamon, a pinch of sugar, and shaved macadamia nuts.

It works equally well with rum or tequila. Tweak the recipe or your expectations and you don’t need the lime juice. I find the acidity is nice for balance, but do what you like. And if you find something cool, tell me about it. Cheers.

Merkin Vineyards – Shinola 2011

I don’t normally write about wine, mostly because it’s a little out of my range of expertise. I’m not totally unschooled, but all that means is that I know just enough to have caught a glimpse of the staggering, Himalayan breadth of my own ignorance.

But this is a Maynard wine. For those who don’t know, in addition to being the lead singer of Tool, A Perfect Circle, and Puscifer, Maynard James Keenan is a fledgling winemaker. His stuff is very small production and somewhat bizarre in that he owns vineyards in Arizona and New Mexico as well as California. He likes strange varietals from uncommon places, which, if you too are gushingly familiar with his work, you’ll agree fits.

We picked up a bottle the other night, and as a once rabid Tool fan and pan-Maynard appreciator, as well as a professional drinker of drinks, I thought I would say a small something about it. Also, there’s really no other information about it online, and I’ve always thought of myself as the Julian Assange of the San Diego alcohol-based blogosphere.

Merkin vineyards are one of Keenan’s labels which sources grapes from California, Arizona, and New Mexico. Apparently the Shinola used to be a Merlot/Cab wine from California, but it’s migrated southeast, and the 2011 Shinola is entirely a New Mexico wine. It’s an Italian blend, equal parts Sangiovese, Dolcetto, Refosco, and Primativo, spent 10-12 months in new and neutral French oak, and retailed at the 3rd Corner for about $28.

Nose: not too stong. Dark fruits, cedar. Vikki picked up a little steminess.

Taste: Initially tart and withheld. Waiting for an explosion that’s not there. Very tannic, tight. Plums, dark cherry. Slightly flabby. A few hours to open up, and the fruit is much more expressive and the tannins loosen up. Still could use more acid, but not as bad as it was initially.

Finish: Initially dominated by tight, clammy tannins. Once it opens up, finish becomes longer and more balanced. Medium length.

Overall: I really wanted to love this, and initially we were both terribly disappointed. It was a tannic monster, maybe too young. For all Italian grapes I was expecting more acidity to balance, but perhaps that reflects the difficulty in growing grapes in New Mexico. The fruits were clammy and lingered with sweetness in the corners of your mouth. After a few hours, however, we revisited it and found that most of the problems I had with it were at least mostly gone. The fruits were more expressive and the tannins more balanced. Still not without flaws, but at least the winemaker’s vision was coming though a bit clearer. If you get a bottle, be sure that you decant it.

Bottom Line: There are way better bottles of Italian reds for $28, but none that come from New Mexico or are made by rockstars, and that’s essentially what you’re buying. It was more than enough to satisfy my curiosity, but I can’t say that I’d buy it again. What I do like about this and the rest of the Merkin/Caduceus/AZ Stronghold wines is that Maynard likes making unconventional things, and as I’ve said before, it’s always fun to try something new.

Up in Smoke

I was recently asked to make a beer cocktail (read: a cocktail featuring beer in some way) for a mini-competition at Sessions Public. The peremeters were broad and the rules few, and yet I’ve never had a more difficult time inventing a drink. It felt like coaxing blood from a fucking stone, I think mostly because I don’t have a huge amount of respect for the category. Beer cocktails always feel forced to me, more interesting than they are delicious — I’ll have one and find it intellectually satisfying, and not need another. I think that was true of the one I ended up making, and that’s in fact been true of every beer cocktail I’ve ever had, except for one:*

Up In Smoke
1oz Laphroig Islay Scotch
1oz Fuji Apple simple syrup
0.25oz lime juice
3-4oz Allagash Curieux

Shake the scotch, syrup, and lime juice over ice. Strain into collins glass half-full with ice. Top with beer. Garnish with apple slice, and serve.

The Up in Smoke has been on Craft and Commerce’s list since they opened, I believe a Phil Ward original (but I welcome corrections on that point). While it wouldn’t take much mental horsepower to pair, say, a dark rum (caramel and vanilla flavors) with a stout or porter (vanilla and coffee flavors), this drink is the exact opposite. This pulls flavors from all over the place.

The Curieux is a Belgian-style tripel aged in bourbon barrels for 8 weeks. The beer is full of malty sweetness and almost affects a fruity character, which is here compounded by the apple syrup and given a backbone of briny, smokey scotch, a choice as strange as it is successful. Belgian beers can sometimes be too rich for beer cocktails, but the acidity of the lime juice and tart echo of the apple bat it back down.

This is a marvelously creative drink. It’s both fascinating and completely delicious, a 7-10 split in the culinary world. In 100 years, I would never have thought to invent this. Though I’ve thought of drinking it twice this week, and it’s only Thursday.

*MITIGATING DETAIL: A very talented bartender named Adam at Sessions did come up with one that I thought was superb, a rum/ginger concoction with muddled strawberries and topped with Liefmans Fruitesse, a bright, sweet fruit beer from Belgium. This echos the best drink Nick Budrow has ever made me, which was muddled strawberries with Buffalo Trace, lemon juice, simple syrup and again the Liefmans. The sweet/tart, vaguely balsamic quality of sours and lambics lends themselves to mixing with cocktails, particularly when actual berries are involved. Not that it’s necessarily better than not, but they sit more comfortably within the spectrum of deliciousness.

Hudson Whiskey

Recently, Gable Erenzo of Hudson Whiskey came to San Diego to offer tasting and education on his products. He was master distiller for a while, and as such was in a position to answer all of my minute and annoying questions, which was great. I got a bunch of nice photographs of this event, which I accidentally deleted because I’m stupid.

The Facts:

Distillery: Tuthilltown Distillery
Location: Gardiner, New York
Owned By: Privately owned
Major Products produced: Spirit of the Hudson Vodka; Hudson Whiskies — Manhattan Rye, Baby Bourbon, Four-Grain Bourbon, Single Malt, New York Corn
Origin: Since 2005


There are, as I see it, two big challenges facing anyone who wants to start making whiskey. And I’m not even talking about start-up capital or navigating permits or how to source malted barley, all of which I’m sure are very difficult. I’m talking fundamentals — the two obstacles that stop, say, me, from seriously thinking about starting a whiskey distillery at this point in my life are (1) time and (2) purpose:

  1. Time: any idiot can, and many idiots do, make vodka. Good vodka is another story, but vodka itself is not hard — it’s what happens when you distill something a bunch of times and then add water and bottle it. It’s what ramen noodles are to cooking. Whiskey, on the other hand, requires finesse, and more importantly, time. In a 53 gallon barrel (standard size), it takes a between 3 and 6 years to even start getting good. You can cheat with smaller barrels, but even in a tiny 3 gallon, you’re still looking at a few months before you can even consider starting to sell it as whiskey. But what if it’s not as tasty as you’d like?  Tweak the recipe, another few months. Maybe it needs a bigger barrel, another 2 years. It’ll drive you mad, or broke, or both.
  2. Purpose: aside from it being super cool, why make whiskey? Even if cost isn’t an issue, which it totally is, there is already a kaleidoscopic array of transcendentally good whiskeys sold for not very much money at pretty much every liquor store. So what do you have to add? What’s so screaming fucking special about your idea that so necessitates its existence?

They’re worthy considerations, and Tuthilltown Spritis and their whiskey label Hudson, since 2005, has tackled these two obstacles better than any new whiskey I can think of.

The Story:

In 2001, Ralph Erenzo bought some land and an 18th-century gristmill in the Hudson Valley, just outside Poughkeepsie some 80 miles north of Manhattan. He had run a successful rock-climbing business in the city for years, and had finally started actualizing a longtime dream, to create a rock climbing ranch/retreat up north. Fortunately for us, it was not to be: his neighbors, as it turns out, were a stodgy group of litigiously-inclined letter-writers who hated the idea of a commercial business in their little bucolic hinterland, and fought with everything they had. The fight nearly bankrupted him, and in the end he had was forced to admit that his rock-climbing ranch would never be built on that property.

One of the pillars on which the neighbor’s case was built was that the land wasn’t zoned commercially, but agriculturally. So he looked for new ideas, at first considering a brewery, but the gristmill’s history — combined with the prospect of being the first bourbon made in New York since prohibition — led him to a distillery.

He found a partner in the mechanically-inclined Brian Lee, and recruited his son Gable. Among them, they had as much experience with distillation as they did with space travel, but forged ahead anyway. After two years of permits, research, navigating archaic statutes and in some cases altering them, getting a still, sourcing grain, and learning what the hell they were doing, they founded Tuthilltown Spirits, released a vodka made from local apples in 2005, and their first effort, a “baby” bourbon in 2006.

The Spirits:

Five different whiskeys carry the Hudson name, and they are indeed different, with four distinct grain recipes. But there are a couple of commonalities that they all share, unusual (and in some cases unique) distillation principles that help Hudson answer those questions in the above obstacle #2.

  • Grains: They use largely heirloom varieties of of their grains, and are all locally grown. So the corn, for example, that goes into their corn whiskey is 40% normal “field” corn, and 60% heirloom, those maize-like multicolored varieties that are always bursting out of cornucopias around November.
  • Fermentation: They use two different types of yeast, one brewers and one distillers.
  • Distillation: There is, to all of their whiskeys, a curious and alluring cereal quality, a sensation of an actual dusty grain mill. Tasting them immediately evokes the actual grains — you can tell where these come from. I had always assumed that they distilled to a very low proof (à la Fortaleza) because you taste so much of the ingredients, but Gable told us that they distill as high as anyone else, that the graininess you taste is because they do a “whole mash” distillation: they keep the grain solids in the liquid all the way through the process. It’s a “fractioning” still (hybrid pot/column), and everything gets two runs, the first to about 40% and the second somewhere just shy of 80%.
  • Small Barrels: Hudson’s answer to the aforementioned obstacle#1: they use tiny little barrels. Between 3 and 14 gallon. Whiskey will get overaged (too woody = pretty gross, believe me) in a 3 gallon barrel by 6 months, and a 14 gallon by 2.5 years. So smaller barrels means that they can make, age, and sell whiskey at a pace untouched by the Kentucky giants.
  • Sonic Maturation: As Gable tells it, someone told them they should rotate their barrels once a month to hasten the aging process. Unthrilled at the idea of physically rolling every single barrel in their inventory, Lee showed up one morning with a trunk full of bass speakers, to agitate the barrels using sound waves. For a time, the whiskey would rattle away to dubstep and Tribe Called Quest, until one day a tour-goer volunteered his skills as a professional audio engineer. After a weekend of measurements and calculations, he returned with a CD, which cycles through different resonant frequencies to shake the different sized barrels. Which, I think you’ll agree, is pretty goddamn cool.

The Products:


This is their white whiskey, an unaged 100% corn spirit. Untempered by oak, the dry grain hits right away. Very agricultural. Deep, rich corn, like buttered popcorn. No sweetness from the oak means the dry graininess is extremely dry. The best white whiskey I’ve ever tasted, but that’s not saying much. Still, surprisingly drinkable. I’d recommend it for mixing, or just to satisfy curiosity.


It used to be that bourbon could be a maximum of 80% corn, but that apparently ended in the 80s. Hudson’s Baby Bourbon is 100% corn, just an aged version of the New York Corn Whiskey. The oak adds sweetness but the size of the barrel also intensifies the bitterness. The corn is blunted by the wood, but still prominent. I found this hot, dry, and astringent, and was my least favorite of the five (though plenty of people around me disagreed).


If bourbon and scotch had a child, it would be this. Like all the best scotch, it’s 100% malted barley. But scotch is usually aged slowly in once-used barrels, and as such takes on much less wood flavor. The Hudson Single Malt is aged in new, charred oak barrels. All of this combines to another unique offering: still very grainy and this time earthy, the barley picks up more on the sweetness from the oak along with some vanilla notes, with a nice acidity and a finish like caramel and honey. Delicious.


One of my two favorites. 100% rye. This, to me, tastes like how rye is supposed to taste. The rye cereal graininess is out front and prominent, balanced with a perfect level of sweetness and spice. Interesting to drink on it’s own, but this makes one of the cooler Old Fashioneds I could imagine.


My other favorite offering of theirs. I don’t know a single other four-grain bourbon on the market right now (“four grain” referring to (1) corn and (2) barley, and then both, where there’s usually only one, of the “flavoring grains,” (3) wheat and (4) rye). I was not expecting this one to be good and it really surprised me. Very complex. Cereal grain, exactly the right amount of sweetness, perfectly balanced. Wonderful.


We tasted with about 20 other bartenders, and in a chatty little reception afterward, everyone discussed tastes and favorites. What was bizarre is that everyone had a different favorite. I found the Baby Bourbon too immature, but my friend Travis thought it was the best. Vikki liked the Single Malt best. This is to say that they are all very different, and all made well.

They all retail around $40 but only come in 375ml bottles (1/2 size), so each is really like an $80 bottle of whiskey. Which is a lot. On the other hand, it’s a flavor you can’t get anywhere else.

One last note about this idea of uniqueness, because it’s important: small barrels means that the spirit doesn’t just age quicker, but also ages in a different way. There’s more color and woodiness but it’s still relatively immature. There is no cheating time in the aging game. A 53 gallon barrel is like a crock-pot, and a 3 gallon barrel is like a frying pan: both achieve the same overall principle, but you simply can’t get the same product out of a small barrel. And this is one of the ways in which Hudson excels, and where they rise above most of the other new “craft” whiskeys being made today.

If you’re trying to make the same bourbon everyone else is making but trying to do it cheaper, then you’re going to get a cheaper version of the same bourbon everyone else is making. You can’t make Buffalo Trace better than Buffalo Trace does. Whether by instinct or education, the people at Hudson know this, so they make whiskey completely differently.

It’s formulated for those smaller barrels. Yes, the spirit is left a bit immature from the shorter time in smaller barrels, but there’s also the two types of yeast, and there’s also the heirloom grains, and there’s also the whole mash distillation, and when added together it’s not a cheaper or faster version of something that already exists. All of their products have struck their own unique balance, all the uncommon and/or bizarre decisions rest on each other and meet at a common point. That’s what’s so great about it. It is something completely new.

Barrel Aged Vieux Carré (a.k.a. Ancien Carré) — UPDATE

I promised that I’d update with news of how the barrel-aged Vieux Carré (or “Ancién Carré”) turned out, so here we are.

The significance of barrel-aging comes from the interaction between the liquid and the wood. Which is tediously obvious, except that it has one corollary that is worth noting: a smaller barrel means that there’s a higher ratio of surface area wood to liquid. Which  in turn means that the adorable little barrel I had, 3 liters in volume and roughly the size of an adolescent cocker spaniel, ages things extremely quickly.

I checked it at 5 weeks, and it needed just a little more. Then something more engaging must’ve happened, because I forgot about it for a while, suddenly panicking at 7 weeks that I had forgotten and ruined the whole thing, but to my surprise, it was perfect.

Ancien Carré
2oz 7-week barrel aged Vieux Carré
1 cube of ice
1 lemon peel
Add ice cube; express oils of peel over the top of the drink; serve.

I very nearly over-aged this, which would’ve been tragic, but as it stands, it’s perfect. At first, I tried to properly chill it via stirring on ice, and the flavors completely fell apart. I thought I had ruined it, until I made another one and added just one big cube of ice, unstirred, and let time do it’s work. The result, if I may say, is kind of amazing.

The ingredients are top shelf, with such a long time in a small barrel bringing a new complexity and significant oak sweetness. The smell alone could end a war. It’s vanilla and fruit, the symphonic chord of cognac enhanced and deepened by the barrel with the rye adding just enough stiffness to be noticeable. The basic Vieux Carré is delicate and full as it is, and this takes that, plugs it in, and cranks it to 11. This is a phenomenal drink.

Tragically, I can’t give it to you, because we’ve already sold out. We started with a very small batch – if you remember, it was just going to be for me and my friends until I figured out how good it was – and the bar sold out of them already, so I can’t tell you where to get it. However, we are planning another batch (along with an exciting new barrel, if things work like they’re supposed to…), so either be good enough friends with me to have one of the 5 or so I’ve got left in my apartment, or look to URBN in about 8 or 9 weeks.

The Bourbon Trail (6 of 6): Heaven Hill

Note: For brevity’s sake, I’m going to breeze over some of the finer points of distillation, as I’ve already written about them in part 1. For a more thorough breakdown of the bourbon process from grain to bottle, click here, or just type your question in the comments.

The Facts:

Distillery: Heaven Hill Distilleries, Inc.
Location: Louisville, Kentucky and Bardstown, Kentucky
Owned By:  Privately owned by the Shapira Family.
Major Products produced: Elijah Craig; Evan Williams; Rittenhouse Rye; Bernheim; Parker’s Heritage; Fighting Cock; Old Fitzgerald; Henry McKenna
Origin: Since 1935

The Tour:

Everybody’s owned by somebody. For all their talk about heritage and old bricks and father’s fathers, pretty much every major bourbon distillery is now owned by some massive, international corporation: Wild Turkey by the Italian Gruppo Campari, Buffalo Trace and 1792 Barton by Louisiana’s Sazerac, Four Roses by Kirin in Japan, etc., etc. So when I was doing research on Heaven Hill and found that they are “America’s Largest Independent Family Owned and Operated Distilled Spirits Company,” I was excited to see how that might change the experience.

Heaven Hill are also the only people who offer an in-depth tour to the general public, a $25, 3 hour “behind the scenes” experience. As someone who flew to Kentucky for semi-professional reasons, I was sincerely excited about this as well. Three hours! Family owned! We built the whole day around our Heaven Hill appointment, as I assumed it would be the most interesting, the most hands-on and educational.

As it turns out, it was none of those things. Which I’ll explain, but first, a quick aside about the alcohol business: warehouses can hold about 20,000 53 gallon barrels, which due to evaporation have various levels of fullness. But even if the warehouses were only half full of barrels, and each barrel was only half full of spirit, that’s still 2.5 million pounds of insanely flammable liquid. Fires happen. And when they do, they’re not minor.

So while Heaven Hill is based in Bardstown, KY, it has been fermented and distilled in Louisville since 1996, ever since their Bardstown Plant was ravaged by fire and burned to the ground.

What does that mean for your average bourbon tourist? It means that if you do a three-hour tour, you get a three-hour tour of a dumping & bottling plant. We learned almost nothing about bourbon; instead, we learned about the bourbon industry, the nuts and bolts of how such a massive production can be achieved, which is interesting in the way that patent law is interesting. It is conceptually interesting.

Actually immersing oneself in it for several hours, however, is a slightly different story.


We were told that they use 78% corn and 11% each of rye and barley, but it may be 75/10/15 according to a strange little case off the factory floor (pictured above). I know it’s fermented in stainless steel, then it’s distilled via column to 138 proof before being trucked to Bardstown for barreling. And that is everything I know about production.


It may be “family owned,” but it’s not like the tour goes through someone’s kitchen. Heaven Hill is, in fact, the biggest distillery of the six we saw, and the second biggest in the state. They have a standing inventory of some 800,000 barrels and are distilling about 15 million gallons each year (or about 280,000 new barrels), which they keep in 49 aging warehouses that stand like monuments out on the open plains.

Notice how far apart they are? This is because fire is contagious.


This was one cool thing we didn’t see anywhere else: how exactly does the whiskey get into barrel? Behold:

A giant series of tubes sucks the new spirit out of its holding tanks and impregnates the charred oak barrels with it, and then another machine taps the cork — or “bung” (seriously) — securely in. They filled 283,000 barrels in this manner last year, which is a whole lot of barrels. If these machines had been running 24 hours a day (they’re not), that would be more than one barrel every two minutes, nonstop for a year. Which, again, is a whole lot of barrels.

These giant tubes are a relatively new system — apparently, this room used to employ eight people, and the new machines have cut that to three. Our tour guide seemed strangely proud of this fact.


With such an expansive stock, they need to make sure nothing goes wrong. So they have a full-time laboratory on-site, where every single batch gets tested. Each batch (truck-full of barrels) is about 8000-9000 gallons, and before bottled, each one is rigorously tested for proof, chemical levels, etc. They answer directly to the Alcohol, Tobacco and Trade Bureau (TTB), which as it turns out is the ATF’s successor. The ATF doesn’t exist anymore. No more ATF. Huh.


We were taken to a  room the size of a high-school gymnasium and shown the label binders, where they keep master copies of every label for every size of every bottle they make. All 1400 of them. The actual labels to be fed into the hungry machines are stacked 15 feet high on row after row of industrial shelving.

The label room is representative of the larger tour for three main reasons: (1) it had nothing whatsoever to do with what’s inside the bottle, (2) it’s a side of the whole business that we didn’t see anywhere else, and (3) it was oppressively fucking dull.


Their bottling operation is truly enormous. There is an entire capacious warehouse where they just make and store nips, the little 50ml airplane bottles. They were churning out pink-limonade flavored vodka ones while we were there. There are a series of 25-foot tall hydraulic claws to stack pallets, in a room designated just to deal with empty bottles waiting to be filled. On the belts, they’ve got high-speed digital cameras which quality-check the bottles for fullness, label straightness, etc, that can scan 400 bottles per minute for 12 different quality points, automatically discarding flawed ones. It is loud and busy and hopelessly complex, thousands of things going in all different directions of 3-dimensional space, and going there very quickly.

The overall impression is of an operation so big, no one could possibly know everything about it. We never did get to find out of that was true, because after more than an hour of our guide pointing proudly at machinery, it was time for a drink.


We tried two single barrel offerings, The Evan Williams 12 and the Elijah Craig 18. I will say this about Heaven Hill: for all their size and relative tedium, they can make a good whiskey.

  • The Evan Williams 12-year was recently inducted as one of now eight total spirits in F. Paul Pecault’s “Hall of Fame,” which is a not-insignificant honor. It is delicious — bright and almost fruity, very full bodied with oak and age mixing perfectly, and at $25 is a hell of a deal.
  • The Elijah Craig is a bit less complex, but it’s gift is age: there’s something distinctly inimitable about long-aged bourbon. It gets a full richness to the oak that can’t be simulated by aging in smaller barrels or under more extreme conditions, and the Elijah Craig 18 hits that note hard. That’s more or less all there is to it, actually… which is an overstatement, but not a big one. It’s been recently discontinued but is still around, and at $40/bottle, it’s the cheapest fix for lovers of old whiskey.
  • Rittenhouse Rye: we didn’t taste the Rittenhouse that day, but this is the only other product out of Heaven Hill that I have extensive experience with, and note it here because it is noteworthy. Rittenhouse is 100 proof, big and spicy, and at $20 is a steal. I personally don’t like to sip it, but it’s my go-to for Manhattans, even compared to bottles three times its price. A marvelous cocktail rye.

The Bourbon Trail (5 of 6): Maker’s Mark

Note: For brevity’s sake, I’m going to breeze over some of the finer points of distillation, as I’ve already written about them in part 1. For a more thorough breakdown of the bourbon process from grain to bottle, click here, or just type your question in the comments.

The Facts:

Distillery: Maker’s Mark
Location: Loretto, Kentucky
Owned By: Beam, Inc. (formerly Fortune Brands), since 2005
Major Products produced: Maker’s Mark; Maker’s 46.
Origin: Since 1954

The Tour:

The Maker’s Mark distillery sits in Loretto, Kentucky, a town generously described as “remote,” which means that there’s a 30-minute layer of Nothing insulating it on every direction. While Bardstown and Frankfort aren’t exactly cosmopolitan, one could at least find, say, a cup of coffee at noon on a Wednesday.  Not so much in Loretto, population 662. Loretto’s the kind of place you have to pack for.

All the same, Maker’s Mark is a tremendously popular destination, and practically a necessity for anyone on a serious bourbon pilgrimage. I don’t have any special fondness for their bourbon, but we decided early that we had to go, for two reasons: (1) they have been singularly successful in carving out a status as a “premium” spirit, and it’s equally interesting and informative to see how they represent themselves, and (2) it’s big, and people call for it, and as a professional I want to know how it’s made.

On paper, they draw a number of comparisons with Woodford Reserve. Both put out essentially one product (both with one barrel finished product newly debuted), both ferment in cypress wood tanks instead of stainless steel, both are relatively small and yet both are owned by titanic corporations. Both have a similar price point and are direct competitors with one another. And yet everything about them, from the tour to the bourbon itself, couldn’t be more different. While Woodford keeps the cold sterility of a museum, Maker’s Mark affects a manufactured charm, a bit gaudy in it’s quaintness, and as such reminds one of some kind of Bourbon Disneyland.

That being said, the tour was one of the best we had, in part because we had a kickass tour guide, and in part because as it turns out, Maker’s Mark isn’t just a pretty face. While it may not be my personal taste, no one could say it’s not well made. If for no other reason, I’m glad I went because I left considerably more impressed with their product than I was when I arrived.


Maker’s is a “wheated” bourbon. To explain: pretty much all bourbon will have 3 grains — corn, a bit of malted barley, and a third, “flavoring” grain. Most distillers will use rye for its drying spice, but a few (W.L. Weller, Old Fitzgerald, the whole Van Winkle line, and Maker’s Mark) use the smoother, sweeter wheat, yielding a smoother, sweeter product. Personally, I feel like the lack of spice makes Maker’s Mark a bit flat, but for people who think that smoothness equals quality (and have only had Jim Beam), it must taste like deliverance.

In any event, the good people at Maker’s Mark are more than happy to tell you their mashbill: 70% corn, 16% winter wheat, 14% barley. While most distilleries grind these into a fine powder with a hammer mill, Maker’s uses something called a roller mill, which grinds to a coarser grain, the type usually used by breweries rather than distilleries. This is more difficult to extract the sugars, but they believe not pulverizing the grain yields a smoother product.

They cook the corn at boiling temperatures, then lower the heat to 160° and add the wheat, then lower again to 150° before adding the barley. All told, cooking takes about 3 hours before it’s shipped off to the fermentation tanks.


They ferment their thick cereal mash to 10% ABV over about 3 days. They too roll with a handsome set of six cypress wood tanks, cypress used for its inert, water resistant grains. These tanks are relatively small, about 9600 gallons — again surprising me by actually earning the “artisan” title their marketing department tries so hard to claim.

In close detail, not only does it look like a living cerebal cortex (which is awesome), but you can actually see the coarse grains percolating in the foam. Obviously you can’t tell in still frame, but the surface is constantly teeming and crawling while the yeast works its beautiful magic.


Pretty much everything happens under one smallish roof, and the distillation room doubles as the foyer of what feels like a gilded bourbon cabin. From their 10% distiller’s beer, they first pump it through a copper column still up to 120 proof, then into a pot “doubler”  still to 130 proof, which is, in terms of proof, on the medium-low side. To their credit, they don’t distill as high as they are legally allowed (159 proof), missing an opportunity for smoothness but keeping more flavor instead.

Lower left, the maker’s mark of Maker’s Mark: S for Samuels, the last name of the founder Bill Samuels Sr., and IV for being the 4th generation to distill whiskey.

Their spirit safe (where the whiskey is held) is a couple of large copper tubs. They’ll get about 1000 gallons of alcohol out of each fermentation tank, which they water down to 110 proof (also lower than the legal maximum of 125, for reasons that were never explained) and rolled into the aging warehouses.


We were hungry, and didn’t care to see our 5th aging warehouse in something like 28 hours, mostly because they all look exactly the same. They have 26 warehouses. Enough said.

To not be robbed of the chance to genuflect at wooden circles, we were shown to a barrel full of staves (below), in order to illustrate the story of Maker’s 46. Both products, apparently, start exactly the same. Both are aged in a heavily charred barrel (#3 char) for at least 5 years and 9 months, at which point they’re tasted for the first time. The late bloomers might need as long as 9 years, and if a whiskey is aging too slowly, or too quickly for that matter, they’ll shuffle barrels around on different floors, a process that happens once every three years. Once it’s ready — if it’s going to be Maker’s Mark — that’s it. It’s batched and bottled.

Maker’s 46 takes a slightly more circuitous path to bottle. The mature whiskey is kept in the barrel, to which are added are 10 barrel staves of new, seared French oak.  It gets an extra 2.5 to 3 months of what’s called “finishing” like this before bottling.

As for the name. It does not, as I had previously believed, refer to the alcohol percentage, as Maker’s 46 is actually 47% alcohol. The number 46 refers to the 46th page of the experiment notebook, where they finally figured out how to get the flavor they were after. A ha.


The bottling line is like a relief sculpture: one long, linear process with a worn groove on the floor denoting the path for their 100,000 yearly visitors. It’s mostly women on the line, with the expressionless efficiency of workers who’ve long ago accepted that getting photographed by total strangers, once an hour, every single fucking day, is just another annoying thing about their job.

As for the famous wax, every bottle really is hand dipped. They dip, then twist, then put back on the line as the wax drips down. The bottles are then immediately conveyed just past dipper #2, out of frame left, into a little enclosure that looks like an expensive doll house, a cooling hut where the wax solidifies. I have no excuse for missing a picture of this. Forgive me.

EDIT 8/8/12: The talented Alex Scott just did the tour and sent me a picture of the cooling hut. Thanks!:


Like I said, Maker’s Mark has never been my taste. I’m not against wheated bourbons, it’s just something about Maker’s in particular that tastes flat to me. Its got spice on the nose but the taste is sweet smoothness, a hint of caramel and butterscotch, and not a terribly long finish.

I was however pleasantly surprised by the Maker’s 46; it’s their first new product in 50 years and you can tell why they chose it. Apparently, Rob Samuels had an idea of how he wanted his new product to go, and tried a bunch of things until it hit. The barrel staves introduce much more spice and color; the nose is all butterscotch and that’s confirmed in taste along with some of that missing spice and some interesting heat before moving back into that familiar sweetness. More oak means more spice but also more sweetness, and it does risk being too sweet… but all the same, I’d take Maker’s 46 over Maker’s Mark 9 times out of 10.